Saturday, July 23, 2005

Belfast Beat

Oh, the tyranny, the TYRRANY of the blog. If you don't write in it for awhile, you feel progressively less worthy. You feel like you're finking out on your friends. (Not that friends or acquaintances necessarily even read one's blog.) Week after week, it's the item on the to-do list that doesn't get crossed out, but instead gets schlepped from one to-do list to the next. Months have passed, and now the catch-up feels insurmountable, and all my readers have surely abandoned me. Nevertheless, I begin where I left off.

There was good news from Canada. In a matter of days, I received a bulky little package from the housekeeping department of the Wedgewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver. Sure enough, my i-Pod. All the parts accounted for -- even the cute little Japanese cloth bag I keep it in. BOY was I happy. Now I really am seriously considering moving to Canada. Such nice, honest folks up there! So what if they have a rampant crystal meth epidemic that seemed to consume their entire Sunday newspaper?

But my U.K. adventures had just begun. Just a few weeks later, I was off to Belfast to do "Bernstein Beat" up there in front of a specially invited audience, for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Getting there was torture. By most people's standards I'm a shrimp -- and yet my Virgin Airlines seat felt so cramped that my knees ached from being pressed against the seat in front of me. I don't know how the larger people around me could bear it.

Heathrow was a zoo -- especially Terminal One, which the airport official told me was "just through that tunnel." 20 minutes of schlepping all my bags later, I arrived at Dante's vision of Calcutta. Total chaos and misery, with broken air conditioning and broken "do-it-yourself" boarding pass dispensers, and hordes and hordes of confused, unhappy people. After much milling and a long line at the "Quickbag Check" and another long, long line at security, I walked many corridors and finally arrived at my gate where there was a COSTA COFFEE; I've never been so happy to see a Starbucks ripoff in all my life.

I was in something like a fugue state on that plane to Belfast. But the minute I arrived, I sprang into action. The very nice Belfast BBC guy, Declan McGovern, picked me up at the airport and drove me to the BBC offices for an interview to be broadcast the next day. Then he dropped me at my hotel, where I settled into my likeable room and took the nap of all naps.

That evening, Declan invited me to his house -- a tiny renovated rowhouse, like a little vertical ship -- where some 5 of us ate Declan's homemade Guinness Stew. Delicious! His friends were delightful -- but I was surprised that none of them had ever heard of blogs -- or Hummers.

The next morning at the rehearsal, I was so sleepy as to be nearly useless, but the music sounded OK. The conductor was a cute, up-and-coming Brit, Charles Hazelwood, who kept taking calls on his cell phone all day about some Elton John thing he was to conduct in a month for Live 8, involving ten thousand South African kids singing simultaneously on TV with three other locations around the world -- or something. It all sounded very daunting and important. We had lunch in a quite good restaurant with a pretty fancy menu, yet still somehow pervasively British; I had linguine with smoked cod smothered in cream, cheese AND EGG.

That afternoon, I found a hairdresser near my hotel and got my hair washed, blown dry and straightened with a straightening iron -- the crack cocaine of curly-headed girls. After many drinks in the hotel bar and some pretty bad "Cajun chicken" in a restaurant called Bourbon that sported amusingly bordelloid decor, we got back to the hotel and Charles the conductor deemed it necessary to kick the sculpture in the hotel lobby a few times. I decided I liked him.

The "Bernstein Beat" next day at 1 pm went very well. I'd rewritten the narration to accommodate two narrators -- Charles and me -- and I was very pleased with the way that worked. Unfortunately, the audience of invited schoolkids was pretty small; it was exam period. The 50 or so who did come were mostly schoolboys, around 12 years old, all wearing their tidy school blazers, and they sat there like STONES. It was the quietest, politest "MAM-BO!" I ever elicited from an audience. It sounded more like they were saying "Rah-ther!" Maybe the BBC engineers can beef it up somehow for the radio broadcast...

By the time we'd consumed our fish and chips, it was 4 pm, but still very much the middle of the day up there in early June. So my dear friends Humphrey and Christina Burton and I took a drive in their hired car up the coast. (Humphrey directed my dad's concert videos and also wrote a big Bernstein biography.) How utterly gorgeous it was! How odd for cragginess to be so GREEN. We played hide-and-seek with the sun as we drove around the coast, eating chocolate malt balls and talking our heads off, until we got to the famous Giants' Causeway that I'd never heard of -- some really cool rock formations along the water's edge that look like jagged, fused piles of hexagonal rods. If you could slice the rods like baloney, you could make all the cobblestones along Fifth Avenue.

It was crazy-windy on that walk, and we were tired and thirsty and hungry -- and only a mile from the town of BUSHMILLS!! We drove straight to the distillery, which was closed. But a convoy of lorries was just entering the gates (to pick up the goods, no doubt) -- so fearless Humphrey pulled our car right into the lorry line and we sailed in. The gatekeeper chased after us in a state of apoplexy as Humphrey drove serenely down the driveway to get our photo ops in front of the ancient graystone buildings.

After the gatekeeper finally succeeded in shooing us out of his distillery, we drove down the street to the Bushmills Inn, which turned out to be a rather seriously restored country inn, with a stupendous restaurant. We sat by the little fireplace near the entrance, and warmed ourselves with a wee dram o' Bushmills'. I understand now why they drink so much up there; SOMETHING has to make you feel warm in that relentlessly chill, gray weather. Then we had a bite to eat in the restaurant, which was astoundingly good: very fresh vegetables, and not too heavy on the dairy products. We took the fast route home, along the M road. Christina bleated from the back seat every time Humphrey sneaked the rental car over 80. We got back to the hotel in Belfast at 10:30 -- and it was still twilight.

Next day was quiet and restful. More crack cocaine at the hairdresser. I recorded TV links for the future telecast of tomorrow night's concert of Bernstein music. Watched "Finding Neverland" on the TV in my hotel room and thoroughly enjoyed it. Johnny Depp is a marvel; where'd he learn to do a Scottish burr like that? That night our Fearless Leader from Radio 3, John Evans, took us all out to a terrific restaurant in the converted industrial district called "Nick's Warehouse." The first excellent white wine of the trip, followed by my "dessert" of Irish coffee, led to a hangover that was my inseparable best friend for most of the next day.

The following evening was the other concert conducted by Charles Hazelwood and the Ulster Orchestra: "Waterfront at the Waterfront," it was called -- the idea being that among the Bernstein pieces being performed at Waterfront Hall was the suite from the film "On the Waterfront." The concert was great fun -- and during the intermission, Humphrey and I blabbed about my dad with the radio host, Tommy Pearson, for the live broadcast on Radio 3. (Remember, the day before I'd done the links for the future BBC telecast of that concert. Confused? So was I!)

Afterwards there was yet another populous dinner at a local restaurant. I found myself sitting next to Julian Ovendon, the handsome baritone who had just sung Tony in the "West Side Story" excerpts. His voice was rich and fine, and he was handsome too. His girlfriend in London turned out to be Jane Krakowski, beloved of "Will and Grace," who had just that week opened to rave reviews in the West End production of "Guys & Dolls" -- my favorite musical (I was in it in high school). John Evans and I were going to London the next day, so Julian said he'd TRY to get John Evans and me a coupla tix. Pretty unlikely, on such short notice, but it was sweet of him to offer.

Next day, as John and Tommy and I were picking up our luggage in Heathrow, John's cell phone rang. It was Julian; Jane K. had scored us a pair of tickets for that very night!!! I was so thrilled that I did a little hopping dance around the luggage carousel.

So that evening, I met my brother and his wife for dinner with Marin Alsop (who would conduct my dad's MASS the following night). I excused myself early and dashed over to the Picadilly Theatre to catch that WONDERFUL production of "Guys and Dolls." Such fun. Afterwards, John gave me a ride back to my hotel through balmy, hopped-up, Saurday-night London in his fancy sedan -- with the TOP DOWN.

My hotel was located in Russell Place, where a month later, one of four bombs would go off and mess up the world just a little bit more. I wonder if anybody's riding around London with the top down now.